Today is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. In recent years I have developed an increased interest in presidential history which has afforded me a greater appreciation for the turbulent years of the Lincoln administration. Lincoln continues to take the top spot for America’s greatest president in the opinion polls and almost every middle school student has had to memorize his Gettysburg Address. It was not this famed battlefield speech however that Lincoln was most fond of. That honor was reserved for his second inaugural address.
Lincoln scholars widely agree that the 16th president’s second inaugural address is not only the greatest speech from the pen of Lincoln, but is also one of the most profound documents in American history. Even a perusal of the transcript yields a remarkable disjunction in content from speeches not so terribly long ago in American history to the kind of things we hear from presidents today. I’m not necessarily arguing that such developments are all negative. But read over the below selection from Lincoln’s second inaugural address and notice the foundation of the content:
“Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration,
which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of
the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself
should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less
fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the
same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem
strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in
wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us
judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be
answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his
own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must
needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence
cometh!” If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those
offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which,
having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove,
and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the
woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any
departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living
God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that
this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills
that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two
hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until
every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn
with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must
be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”
As Lincoln interprets the cause and purpose of the Civil War, he does so through a theological lens and reaches fascinating conclusions. As ultimate victory for the Union Army was nearly in hand, Abraham Lincoln must have wrestled with the temptation to emphatically pronounce to the nation that God had in fact been on the side of the Union and that the north’s interpretation of Scripture was correct. God was on their side. But Lincoln resists such a temptation and instead makes the surprising statement that “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. . .let us judge not that we be not judged.” Lincoln makes no apology for winning the war and continues to firmly renounce the institution of slavery. Yet he is unwilling to claim a direct pipeline to the will and purposes of God over and against his southern enemies who also plead for the aid of their God. In fact, Lincoln acknowledges that through God’s absolute sovereignty, the offence of slavery served some strange, mysterious purpose.
Lincoln’s approach is significant from both a political and individual point of view. Politically, this speech establishes the possibility that any particular country or army might mistakenly assert the will of God for their particular political cause. Although such humility should not necessarily negate the country’s determination to follow through on its position, it should nevertheless establish a cautious approach to the “God is definitely on our side” position. Last year the Reverend Jeremiah Wright rightfully came under attack for his hateful speech against the United States, specifically concerning 911. However, an aspect of his message rings true; America is not by default always right just because we are America. We Christians need to fervently pray for our country. Such an action is Biblical. We need to voice our opinion and not cower away in light of an anti-religion culture. However, our leaders in Washington need not and should not march the flag of Divine Approval in front of their respective battles, whether they be on a literal battlefield or in the course of doing politics. Lincoln thought he was right. He stood firm on his convictions. But he wasn’t willing to say that God was for the north and against the south. At that point he drew the line.
Humility is important for individual believers as well. Knowing and doing the will of God as individual Christians is a bit different than a country claiming divine approval. We can be confident that God has a purpose for us (Jeremiah 29:11) and that we are to draw close to him and he will draw close to us. Still, those of us who take Scripture and interpret it must acknowledge that we are on this side of glory. None of us are always right. All of us are accidental heretics. So do we throw our interpretations in the air and decide nothing can be certain? Of course not. But we do approach our fellow Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Atheists with an attitude of humility. And then we confidently share our interpretation with them.
Lincoln was a man who didn’t boast. The apostle Paul only boasted in the cross. Both serve as wonderful examples. God help us.